Baroness Tonge: Why the Lords Report is wrong

The long-awaited House of Lords Report on the conduct of Baroness Tonge has been published.

It follows the meeting on 25 October 2016 which she hosted and chaired. David Collier was present at that meeting and blogged it here.  I wrote about it here.

We learn that as many as six of her fellow Peers complained (Lord Beecham, Lord Carlile of Berriew, Baroness Deech, Lord Mitchell, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill and Lord Stunell). Karen Leon also complained as did Mark Regev, the Ambassador of Israel. I am also mentioned in the Report.

At the time of the meeting I was not aware of the existence of the Lords Standards Commissioner.

However I became aware (in the course of searching for the rules for Peers who want to book meeting rooms) and submitted a complaint on 16 December (Appendix O) about a further meeting she hosted, on 14 December, to discuss an explicitly antisemitic book.  I blogged about that meeting here.

As I reported two months ago, the more serious charge – that she failed to act on her personal honour, by hosting an anti-Semitic meeting on 25 October – was dropped.

The Report reveals that she has been found in breach of the Code of Conduct but only on the relatively minor matter of failing to obtain permission for the 25 October meeting to be filmed.

The Report explains why the ‘personal honour’ charge was dropped. But it is wrong on three counts.

1) Audience member 11 said “……one of the main Zionist speakers in America, so-called Rabbi Stephen Wise, a Reform heretic so-called rabbi, is quoted in the New York Times, I think it was 1905, “There are 6 million”—note the number—“bleeding and suffering reasons to justify Zionism.” Thirty years later he made the boycott on Germany, the economic boycott on Germany, which antagonised Hitler over the edge to then want to systematically kill Jews wherever he could find them….”

The Commissioner says the sentence in bold is not anti-Semitic because “the rest of Audience member 11’s contribution appears to show that he accepted the reality of the Holocaust.” But that’s really not the point. The point is that the Stephen Wise quote is frequently used by anti-Semites to suggest that the number of ‘six million’ Jews who died in the Holocaust was made up, in advance. See for example here. And why else would Audience member 11 quote it, except to make the same anti-Semitic point?

2) Now look at the rest of what Audience member 11 said (“Thirty years …). This is the anti-Semitic suggestion that the responsibility for the Holocaust lay with Jews themselves. They had so “antagonised” Hitler with their demands for a boycott of Nazi Germany that he had gone “over the edge” and decided to kill them all.

Yet inexplicably the Commissioner rules that it’s NOT anti-Semitic because “those who do not have this specialist knowledge cannot be expected to decode incomplete references to allegations which do not, in the words used, appear to be antisemitic, or even anti-Zionist.” But again that’s not the point. Just because the Commissioner is not experienced in judging antisemitism does not mean that Audience member 11 can be let off the hook! She should have taken advice from someone who IS experienced.

3) Now look at a comment from Audience member 8.

“The trouble is that 100 years on, and I’m not talking about world Jewry, I’m talking about that segment which we call the Zionist movement, which has that power. It has it over our own Parliament. It has been able to put people into a very invidious situation.

When I look around middle-class society, there is a lot of awareness of what’s gone on. I can see this when I talk at the churches, at the political parties, even to my own family. There is a massive fear factor of being outed or denigrated or, to put it in the words of Sir Alan Duncan, of being “trashed, traduced and bullied” because you speak up for Palestinians. We have created that situation for ourselves and we need to tell people that. Ultimately we will pay for this in suppression of free speech and the ability to discuss things openly among ourselves. We cannot have the sort of open debate that we had about Scottish independence, which horrified me—the idea of tearing our country in two—but it was carried out in a relatively civil manner if you compare it to the sort of nastiness you get if you stand up for the Palestinians and the smearing that can come not only from Zionists and people who are not even Jewish but who are playing that game—there are some of them here in Parliament. So please let’s take that message out to the people as well.”

They are saying that Zionists control Parliament; Zionists can “put people into a very invidious situation”; Zionists suppress “open debate”. Anyone who has studied antisemitism knows that this is a common device of anti-Semites, to substitute the word ‘Zionist for ‘Jew’. (See eg Jewish Perceptions of Antisemitism, by Gary A. Tobin and Sharon L. Sassler). The Commissioner’s assertion (“Audience member 8’s allegation of controlling Parliament is not made against Jews, but against Zionists and non-Jews who “smear” those who support Palestinians”) again shows that she is not experienced in assessing antisemitism.  The fact that Audience member 8 says that some Zionists are not Jewish is just not relevant. Most Jews are Zionist, most Zionists are Jews and more Jews live in Israel than anywhere else.

To sum up so far – On three counts, the Commissioner has ruled in Baroness Tonge’s favour, when she should have found against her!

Now to my own complaint (included as Appendix O in the Commissioner’s Report). I complained that Baroness Tonge was in breach of the ‘personal honour’ requirement, because on 14 December she hosted a meeting to discuss the book “State of Terror” – a book full of antisemitic tropes. This complaint was not even considered and the Report offers no explanation.  I will be pursuing this with the Commissioner.

Finally – as explained in the Petition (signed thus far by nearly 900 people) – the Commisioner interprets paragraph 113 of the Code of Conduct (which states that it is outside her remit to consider complaints about members’ non-parliamentary activities) very narrowly.  The reality is that Baroness Tonge’s social media activity and her principal Parliamentary activity are about the same thing – Israel and the Palestinians. There have been a number of recent examples of Baroness Tonge promoting anti-Semitic material on social media – for example here and here. To exclude those from the ‘personal honour’ consideration puts the lie to the insistence of Parliamentarians that combatting antisemitism is important – how can it be, if it is tolerated in a Member of the Lords?

It is a nonsense for the government to formally adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism while at the same time turning a blind eye to meetings with anti-Semitic content within the Parliamentary Estate, and to anti-semitic acts of a Lords member, just because they are physically committed outside the Chamber.

About the Author
Jonathan Hoffman is a blogger who has written for United With Israel, CiFWatch (now UK Media Watch), Harrys Place and Z-Word.
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